I was debating whether to write about this because, while I have several opinions on the benefits of veganism (etc.), it’s been done a thousand times before and I think – now more than ever – humankind knows where it stands on such issues. The documentary which inspired this article is already over a decade old. However, a couple of my friends have addressed it and my brother and I had a long discussion today, so I’ll try and make it as brief as possible.
So my flatmates and I watched Earthlings recently. It was a documentary the world needed to see. A year after its release date (2005), Animal Welfare Laws regarding breeding animals, animals as food and animals as pets changed drastically in a short time. It was a film (among others) which notably turned thousands away from meat and made the masses think about what they put in their mouths. This I’m not dismissing by any means – but neither was the film without its faults.
Earthlings addresses the five ways we regard animals according to our ego; as pets, as food, as clothing, as entertainment and finally as test subjects. Good, I thought. I have very solid stances on each of these issues:
Domestic generations of animal are the only ones capable of being domesticated.
Animals can and should be farmed without unnecessary cruelty.
Wearing the skin or pelt of an animal is abhorrent and unnecessary.
Animal’s pain or discomfort in the name of ‘entertainment’ is abhorrent and unnecessary.
Testing cosmetics on animals is abhorrent and unnecessary. Medicine is a slightly grey area, but only when it involves cross-species disease (such as cancer).
I think even training a dog (with the exception of police/service animals) beyond the commands ‘Sit’, ‘Heel’ and ‘Stay’ is unnecessary – I think people who do almost have a need to assert a pathetic dominance over something (past the point of benefiting the animal itself). I’m lucky enough that most (albeit not all) of my meat and eggs growing up came from farmers I knew personally; family friends who farmed on a tiny scale and sold locally. I knew that ‘within British farming standards’ on supermarket meat with that blasted red tractor did not equate to ‘these animals did not suffer’. If you were the type to splurge a year of Daddy’s salary to wear a dead mink, chances are I sent you flowers because you were officially dead to me. I adored zoos, but I never saw a circus with an animal in it and I was quite content in keeping it that way.
I knew exactly what to expect in Earthlings but I still wasn’t quite prepared for some of the horrific footage. I started crying not five minutes in and didn’t stop until it was finished. Awful, inhumane acts – castration, teeth pulling, tail-docking, skinning, beating, de-beaking, throat-slitting, cannibalism – all things which don’t and shouldn’t have to happen. The (mainly American) men committing such acts seemed to relish it beyond employment. They laughed. They jeered. They had five minutes a day to play with the life of something weaker and, boy, did they lap it up. It was sickening.
But I couldn’t help feel all the way through the film that it was preaching a cause without actually doing anything to further it. In the apt style of the film, I found I had five problems with it (from a completely analytical standpoint, and exclusive to Earthlings – not a criticism on any other documentaries on animal rights, or the philosophy of animal rights itself):
Some of the footage used was three or four years old – stuff I remember watching and feeling sick over when I was maybe seven years old. This doesn’t make it irrelevant by any means, but the fact that it wasn’t sourced was a problem. Where is this happening? Which farms should we be spearheading? Who do we fund and who do we take down? Who do we work to support? Who really cares about animal rights and who polices with privilege? What can we do to help?
Granted, the film’s intent was not to point you in any particular direction (as long as that direction was away from farms), rather just expose what a lot of people don’t know or refuse to acknowledge. But what good is shaming and fear-mongering if all of it’s happening beyond your reach? The difference between propaganda and education is not just trustworthy, relevant, accurate, and/or empirical information, but the influence of change. Education is supposed to provide you with tools to learn, to grow, to survive. Earthlings, in my opinion provided nothing but sore eyes and nausea. Thank you, Joaquin, you’ve succeeded in enlightening me, but now what? Parrot what I’ve heard despite having no evidence to back it up (other than the films themselves)? That doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening – what’s more is I don’t know where, or when, and thus I can’t do what.
I remember in year 9 food tech., a substitute (who happened to be vegetarian) showed us a de-beaking video and then got furious when nobody reacted with particular passion or disgust (not beyond ‘ugh that’s minging’ anyway). I remember just rolling my eyes like, Lady, what do you expect? Us kids didn’t care, because we didn’t appreciate having arguments thrown at us rather than introduced to us rationally. People don’t want to look at it because it makes them feel bad – but that doesn’t automatically mean they wouldn’t want to do something about it. But it’s naive to expect people to not draw their own conclusions about what they see, and even sillier to get angry when they don’t hold those conclusions as highly as you do. I used to do it all the time, and it was exhausting – DOESN’T THIS MAKE YOU ANGRY? WHY DON’T YOU CARE LIKE I CARE? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? It leads to a lot of judgement – and funnily enough that teacher wasn’t well respected by us students – and distracts from rational discussion. Don’t show us shit and say ‘this is wrong and any one who doesn’t think so is also wrong’. Ask us ‘why might people think this is wrong? How can we take steps to rectify it?’. Think of it with race: I can say ‘hating on [x] people is wrong because of reasons [y] and [z]. Here is indisputable evidence of [y] and [z], thus discrimination of [x] is illogical’. A bigot might say ‘hating on [x] people is right because of [y] and [z]. I don’t have indisputable evidence of [y] and [z], but it’s still right. It just is. This one time, on this one farm, this happened. Grr.’
This is probably a horribly unfair and unreasonable ask of Shaun Monson from me, as the film is simply an expose, and provokes discussion in itself – and any discussion is good discussion. But I just don’t feel satisfied – or perhaps I should say convinced – when people throw information and expect me to accept it without any kind of cynicism. I’m already for animal rights, I’m open to alternative foods – but if I wasn’t already, I doubt an hour of animal gore would have changed my mind. If my memory serves me correctly, Earthlings basically said ‘Stop Being Speciesist’ at the end of the stomach-churning footage. Cool, I will. I might have done without all that. Now what?
Point sufficiently laboured, this brings me to my next one:
The film features a famous quote from Jeremy Bentham, whom in 1821 was the first to philosophise the rights of animals in terms of utilitarianism. He said that the single most important question is not ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’, but rather ‘Can they suffer?’. This argument is often seen as the cornerstone of the animal rights philosophy (and often spat out by *coughterroristfundingcoughpuppymurderingcoughcompletelyfuckedupandbigotedcoughcoughcough* organisations such as PETA willy nilly to justify militancy against meat-eaters). The irony of this quote is that Jeremy Bentham actually saw nothing wrong with eating meat. He ate meat once per day. But, he lived by the code that man should seek to give farm animals a decent life, and strive to offer the animal a death that was less painful than what would have awaited them in the natural world. I live(d) by a similar code – and the proposition that veganism (or even anti-specism) the is the solution to animal suffering is not only absurd, but completely self-righteous. It’s a complex ethical issue; it does not deserve to be simplified in such a way. If we want to continue to survive, there is no escape – every harvested soy bean ensures the death of a fields-worth of field mice. Every crop sewn requires the extermination of herbivores and invertebrates. Every vegetable planted results in the eviction of Bambi and Flower and whatever other Earthlings inhabit that patch of earth.
That’s not to say veganism/vegetarianism is a bad thing, not in the slightest – both diets are (for the most part) healthier, far more sustainable (economically and practically) and far better for the environment. In fact, a more realistic goal is not to eliminate the consumption of meat (and leather as a by-product, not necessarily separately imported like the India clips in Earthlings would suggest) but reduce the demand for it, ergo minimise breeding and better the treatment of the remaining animals. Farm animals are the unfortunate result of centuries of domestic breeding down from their ancestral genus. Complete speculation, but I think that releasing all the farm animals in the world and abandoning animal agriculture would probably be far crueler – in the UK, chickens would be absolutely fucked; fallen prey to Fantastic Mr Fox and starved to compete for food that isn’t poured on the ground in front of them. Common sheep need regular shearing (which is not the same as skinning) and a smaller demand for wool would result in heat sickness or death in unsheared sheep. Those that probably could survive in the wild (for example cows and pigs) might populate to the point where us humans start to consider them vermin and start culling them anyway. However, crushing the food industry back into humble, small-scale farms like back in the good old days might ensure a much more humane solution.
Vegetarianism is a fantastic way to start this process – though it’s not actually necessary! This video from last year illustrates it beautifully, more than Earthlings did IMO:
The above stated that to half food emissions from animal agriculture you would still be allowed to eat 7 portions of chicken, 5 eggs and 85g of red meat per week – which is a fucking massive amount if you ask me! Even when I was a total carnivore I didn’t eat any where near that much (bonus: you save the fucking planet!). However, Earthlings quite rightly explored the fact that we don’t just think of animals as food – they suffer for sport too. This comes to my 3rd qualm:
The zoo part of the film was the only part I didn’t cry at, and they only part which I think was handled really poorly – particularly as the objective was to make us consider how animals serve us, but failed to mention how we can serve them (other than renouncing speciesism). Naturally, it was the shortest section, and can pretty much be summed up as ‘Conservation or cruelty? Animals are put in unnatural environments so we can look at them and this is bad’. Okay. Thanks for that, Joaquin.
Of course some dodgy Eastern-European zoo is going to be god-awful and completely unequipped to cater for exotic animals – but the ignorance around conservation zoos is astounding, and I can’t help but get angry when animal rights activists (if you can call them that) fail to realise the harm that can be done if we boycotted zoos. I’m not talking ‘entertainment’ parks like Seaworld (don’t get me started) or Safaris, but real research zoos. Chester Zoo, in my home county of Cheshire, is the largest conservation zoo in the UK and I will continue to defend (and fund) it till the end of time – and not just because it’s a part of my childhood. Half of the 500 different species exhibited within its walls are critically endangered (some even extinct in the wild) and it’s at the forefront of field conservation, animal health and species research and conservation breeding. They launch huge campaigns combating deforestation of animal and plant habitats (including from the palm oil trade), and animal welfare (heard of EEHV? Yeah, me neither – but these guys are trying to fight it!). I’m aware that condors don’t belong in a cage, and elephants should be roaming Asian rainforests – but the animals who can be put back are, often shifted in for conservation breeding for the good of their species.
I’ve seen what it’s like there – it’s not over crowded or painfully fake with rubber plants and painted environments. There are no animals pacing with cage madness or environments too small for the species – no whales or dolphins or polar bears. The animals are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (relatively speaking) and not floating around miserably with glazed-over eyes and weeping sores. Two or three trips ago, I remember a young female rhino (let’s call her Sasha because I feel like that was her name) trotting about her enclosure. When people waved or raised their cameras, she preened – she literally tossed her head and snorted, posing and playing up to the crowd, seemingly relishing the interaction and attention. Apart from maybe the chimps, I’ve never seen an animal behave in such a way – but I don’t need to be a zoologist to know that it wasn’t a sign of distress.
Now I’m not inside Sasha’s head, nor can she communicate what she was feeling. Was that animal happy? I don’t know. Had she had that behaviour beaten into her? Maybe (though unlikely, consider Chester offers 24/hr livestreams of some of their animals). But guess fucking what: Sasha was a West African Black Rhino – officially fucking extinct in the wild thanks to poachers, with maybe about 9 in the world outside of that fucking zoo. If that zoo was boycotted she’d have been shipped back to Africa and right into some butcher’s hands ready to be crushed into medicine. No time to breed, no time to survive – just murdered by the people who vow to protect her. And what about research? How can we expect to care for animals and treat them (even medically) the way we would humans if we don’t know anything about them? Think about diseases sweeping across species such as EEHV in elephants and facial tumors in Tazmanian Devils. We can’t research them in the wild beyond observation. But we can’t keep animals in a lab, right, because it’s cruel? So how about fucking zoos?
All of the profits from Chester’s 1.6 million annual visitors funds this research, these projects. Of course, not all zoos are as good and concerned with welfare as Chester – but nor is Chester unique in its work. Dismantling all zoos in the name of animal rights is dangerously detrimental, not to mention counterproductive – all we need to do is research which ones are ethical and actually serve animals – and simply don’t support the rest. Even if you don’t want to visit and gawp at them, you can ‘adopt’ an animal or donate to the research projects. Think pro-zoo, anti-park – particularly parks which don’t contribute towards animal welfare research, conservation, or education and profit on the suffering and boredom of their animals.
I digress. Is an English zoo an exotic animal’s natural habitat? No. Is it ideal? Not particularly. Is it better than them being extinct? You tell me.
Phew! On a slightly less aggressive note, and one I’ll try and keep short (I mean it this time!), another problem with the way Earthlings communicated its message was that while becoming vegan is all well and good, it’s not always feasible. It’s expensive – particularly as going veggie doesn’t save you from GMO crops or pesticides, so truly organic fruit and veg can really put a dent in your income (though that’s an issue for another day). It’s also not possible for some people to stomach a meat-free lifestyle (susceptibility to copper poisoning, zinc deficiency, allergies, gluten or wheat intolerance, etc.), and, Joaquin I love you, but I really struggle to any kind of movement seriously when it doesn’t practise what it preaches (I mean this in the sense that Nation Earth hasn’t really done much for animal rights since Earthlings… apart from produce its sequel, Unity – and I’ve heard in 2020 Beings will complete the trilogy!) and its leaders are the epitome of white privilege.I would be far more inclined to follow a band of dirty-faced, barefooted radical hippes who actually went out and protested every day than a rich man with editing software and a celebrity narrator in tow.
Again, probably unfair of me, but it’s also really easy to say ‘love all, go vegan’ when you have the financial means to do so. Earthlings does, however, out that animal cruelty goes beyond food – by acknowledging our purchases in terms of pelt, skin, toys and entertainment, we can help combat mistreatment of animals on a wider scale.
Last but not least, here comes my degree:
This is the big controversial (at least for the time) one: ANIMAL AGRICULTURE IS NOT, I REPEAT, NOT EQUIVOCAL TO THE HOLOCAUST!!!!
Here’s why: the definition of the word ‘holocaust’ is ‘destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire or nuclear war’. Historically, a holocaust is also a Jewish sacrificial offering, typically burned at an altar (and, surprise, surprise, I’m sure you can guess who decided to use the term mockingly to refer to the culling and incineration of Jewish folk). Thereby, the mass slaughter of animals is, by definition, holocaust. Feel free to say ‘this is a holocaust of the animal world’ or ‘the amount of animals slaughtered for no reason is holocaust’ or ‘agricultural slaughter is a holocaust’. That’s okay.
HOWEVER, equating animal agriculture to The Holocaust – AKA the historical event which saw the mass extermination of 11,000 people who didn’t fit another group’s Aryan criteria – is absolutely not okay or comparable in the slightest. Not necessarily because we consider animals as lesser beings – but because, culturally, it’s a triggering thing.
Look at this image:
Believe it or not, this is a fucking promotion for vegetarianism (previously linked above coughPETAcough) which was unsurprisingly banned in Germany. Pretty disgusting, right?
Those are people, with lives, splayed across a billboard to evoke a cheap emotional response for the sake of an agenda. Biologically, we see eyes and and limbs and human faces and we want to be more disturbed for them, save them, protect them, because they’re like us.
Those chickens also have a right to life. However, the chickens aren’t part of a society which have them live on past their bodies – they do not have a concept of family, or grief, or ethics, or empathy, or morals, or probably even memory. Does this make them lesser beings? Of course not. It’s not a question of valuing intelligence – it’s just a fact that chickens so not have cognitive systems which allow for the emotional capacity in that of rats, primates and whales. This means that a chicken friend isn’t going to tell horror stories to its grandchickens about the great chicken holocaust, and then be upset or triggered when the milk cows say the Mass Milking of ’89 is totally the same thing.
But each one of those human faces is being looked on in the street by a potential relative, friend or fellow inmate who deals with the pain of survival. They live on in stories and are remembered. Even in death, we’re never really put out of our misery.
I think it’s up to the survivors – if they choose to describe animal slaughter as ‘just like the Holocaust’ then fair enough. But as people who do not have a direct connection to this experience of violence, it would be a form of cultural appropriation to use the Holocaust to describe the conditions experienced by marginalised animals. There are similarities shared by the marginalised groups in how they face subjugation, violence, and death. But we shouldn’t be casually using the struggles of other groups in order to raise up a different one – it doesn’t justify the mass murder of chickens, but comparing agriculture with a traumatic historical event for the sake of welfarist arguments does not sit right with me at all, and is, in my opinion, disrespectful.
The other problem with this comparison is cause. Leah mentioned in her similar blog post that genocide and animal slaughter are ‘murder for the sake of murder’ – not true, in either case.
Hitler was not evil. His motives were completely illogical and wrong, and (like I mentioned earlier) we can say that because we know that the concept of Eugenics is indiscriminate – therefore no ‘race’ can be superior to another. But he wasn’t evil – and it’s dangerous to think so. While he led the crusade against marginalised groups, he genuinely thought what he believed in was best for his country and his people. At a dinner with world leaders during the war, he ordered a type of goulash – famously a peasants’ dish – and when questioned he said ‘How can I indulge in splendour when people in my country starve?’. He was an animal rights activist (I mean, he shot dogs – but he also introduced laws to protect them lol), and in a rare bit of colour footage he says to Ava (who’s behind the camera) ‘A beautiful woman like you should be here in front, not an old man like me’.
We don’t like thinking about this because it makes him too human. It makes us uncomfortable. It reminds us just what a person – any person – is capable of. It’s much easier to brandish him ‘just evil’, or ‘a monster’, because then it gives us a way to say ‘oh I’m racist, but I’m not Hitler,’ or, ‘oh yeah, bombing Syria is bad, but it’s not like it’s the Holocaust’ then our unethical acts can escalate without the feeling of guilt. Germans in 1939 were probably saying ‘throwing someone in a ghetto is bad, but it’s not as bad as what the crusaders did! It’s just for the greater good’. But the reality is, he (and millions of other people) thought that the murder of 11,000 other people was for a good cause. They thought logically that a different type of human – not even a different species, but our kind whom we’re genetically programmed to seek out and protect above others – were not human at all, but lesser beings. Then we consider animals – they are murdered (primarily) for food. To consider an animal food, are you subsequently considering it a lesser being?
It kind of depends how you look at it, and whether you place animals in a hierarchy. People say ‘why would you eat a cow, but not a dog?’ and that’s often the logic that turns people to vegetarianism in the first place. Maybe it’s just me, but I would eat a dog. I don’t choose to, because I have the option not to (again, I’m privileged enough to have the choice). I would eat a human as well, if I had to. That isn’t so much speciesism as self-preservation – but even in considering it food, does that automatically mean you value its life less? One of the messages of Earthlings was that all inhabitants are equal; no life is worth more or less than another. If that’s true, why are animals exempt from this rule? A point that I could not accept was that humans are the only species that exploit other animal species. What about the predators? Do they not eat meat? Do they have to carry moral issues? Oh, but that’s nature, they’re not intelligent enough to… wait, they’re equal – we can’t exclude them based on intelligence.Where does it end?
Primate brains come part and parcel of Evolinguistics – and I can confirm that they are smart. I rather naively said in a first draft of my personal statement that empathy is ‘a uniquely human trait’ – this couldn’t be more wrong. Elephants grieve. Orcas mourn their missing families. And chimps show strong evidence of cognition – they can recognise intention in others, deceive others, and even display Machiavellian intelligence (e.g. double-bluffing). Humans can maybe keep track of 6 orders of intentionality before their heads explode (fact). Take this example by Dan Dennett:
I suspect  that you wonder  whether I realise  how hard it is for you to be sure that you understand  whether I mean  to be saying that you can recognise  that I can believe  you to want  me to explain that most of us can keep track of only about five or six orders [of intentionality].
In tactical deception, chimps demonstrate that they can follow up to 4 orders of intentionality. Translation: that is some damn complex thinking – very much on our level. I could go on – but I won’t type out the entire evolution of language. Can they reason? Most definitely. Can they talk? Almost. Do they suffer? Absolutely. Does this mean that they should be held in higher regard than a chicken, whose thoughts aren’t cognitive thoughts at all? Not necessarily. Would I still eat one knowing it thinks on a human level? Probably.
Chimps have been observed to to emote and empathise too. But I also know that they have been observed murder, rape and beat up their peers beyond simple needs instinct – they do it to punish, sometimes in revenge, sometimes just out of anger and provocation. Murder for the sake of murder, one might say – but if all lives are valued equally, regardless of skill or genes or intelligence, why are chimps exempt from the speciesism rule? Is it because we should know better? Again, how can we know better if hierarchy can’t be decided based on intelligence or cognition?
I’ll stop now, because I am really just starting to play devil’s advocate.
A lot of the cruelty in Earthlings was horrendous, and completely unnecessary. The hardest part for me was the circus animals, and the sporting bulls. This showed a real inhumanity – pain without reason, without benefit, without remorse. Just cruel people doing cruel things, knowing full well that the animal was in awful pain and not even reaping the gift of survival from its meat – but just reveling in the fact that it failed to survive against us. Animal torment goes beyond farming. They are not entertainment. They are not all pets. They are not accessories. While they might serve us in food, the least we can do is serve them in humanity – reducing the demand for animal produce would ensure a better life for animals in all fields of agriculture and save their habitats. In learning about them we can eventually understand them, and treat them without hierarchy. We didn’t kill and eat the pig and call it custom – it is nature, after all – but neither should we let it live in agony.
Hopefully this has made you feel better about it, Bubbs, as it wasn’t a case of you feeling too much, or me feeling too little (though I appreciate the implication), but rather – quite appropriately – survival. Of course it made me feel like shit. Of course I care about the treatment of animals. Of course I want to do my part to change it. But I’m not a deity or a millionaire. I can’t turn around and will it away. I can do my part by not eating meat – but that’s it for now. The content wasn’t particularly new, or presented well. I’m aware of such things, but I can’t afford to lose sleep over it on top of constantly disassociating and thinking about uni. It’s haunting stuff, graphic stuff – but no amount of imagery is going to change the fact that we have limited ways to help in the positions we’re in right now.
Your reaction wasn’t too emotive or radical, neither was mine too distanced. It’s simply that particular film, in my opinion, relied too heavily on emotional appeal, and lacked logical appeal. I felt it was trying to manipulate my sense of sympathetic duty, rather than evoking the rational morale that one should keep – and, like I said, if I wasn’t already aware and already heading down Vegetarian Alley then it probably wouldn’t have succeeded in convincing me to tread there (though if I was 20 a decade ago, it might have been completely new and enlightening to me). There are other films which show you such awful realities in a much more balanced way, and also suggest solution rather than speculation, such as ‘Mercy for Animals’.
Who cares if Feebs thought it was dumb. Who cares if you thought it was illuminating. At the end of the day our views haven’t changed – we know vegetarianism’s a good idea and we know animals will be treated better if we make these lifestyle changes. While I don’t think Catarina’s ‘it’s only a cow, it was gonna die anyway’ attitude is particularly helpful, throwing graphic imagery has never really worked as a convincing campaign for me, either.
Will I eat vegetarian? Absolutely, and I’ll continue to try to.
Am I vegetarian? Absolutely not – it’s just not in my nature.
This is a long-ass post and the questions are so nice that I don’t want to answer them here, they deserve they own post: [x] 🙂 click to read about mermaids!